Ovid's Metamorphoses in Our Time

Judith de Luce

Miami University

It is nothing new to acknowledge the influence of Ovid on Western literature.  Discussions of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or Shakespeare alone provide ample opportunities to speak of Ovidian influence and reception.  In this paper I want to pursue further an issue I raised in a preliminary fashion last year and which I propose to examine more closely now.  I argue that the Metamorphoses is peculiarly appropriate for an audience in the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries and recommends itself for inclusion in our courses.

 Since at least the seventies Ovid in general and the Metamorphoses in particular have enjoyed growing popularity. The interest even transcends the classroom and the study. Philip Terry's Ovid Metamorphosed (2000), Thea Musgrave's "Narcissus,"a composition for flute and digital delay (1988)  and Felice Lesser's choreography  Narcissus to the music of Musgrave (1989) as well as Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid  (1997), Timberlake Wertenbaker's play The Love of the Nightingale (1988)and Mary Zimmerman's play Metamorphoses (2002) all attest to the popularity of the Metamorphoses.

One might be tempted to attribute this popularity to the popularity of mythology in general.  Since the eighties, Bill Moyers' programs with Joseph Campbell, for example, refreshed popular interest in the study of myth, and one might argue that the interest in Ovid's Metamorphoses goes right along with that renewed interest.  But I think there are other reasons why the Ovid's longest poem has such appeal for modern audiences.

Relying on analysis of Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid and Wertenbaker's and Zimmerman's plays, I argue that the various themes of the Metamorphoses have strong appeal, as does the very phenomenon of transformation. Abuse of power, dehumanization of the powerless, greed, corruption, intimacy, grief and loss: all these appear in the Metamorphoses and all resonate with modern audiences.   For example, in Zimmerman the story of the greed of Midas has particular relevance in an age of Enron and the savings and loan scandals.  The abrupt changes in fortune, as in the story of Alcyone and Ceyx, have considerable poignancy after 9/11.

In addition, transformation provides a resolution to a situation, a resolution that in turn challenges us to consider possibilities.  What would happen if transformation were not possible? How would the story resolve itself?  Transformation is not so much a way of evading a moral dilemma, for example, but instead underscores that dilemma and makes us consider alternative resolutions.  For example, what is the impact of the transformation of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus as Hughes tells it? To what extent is their transformation a metaphor for the dehumanization which characterizes each individual and a warning to us of the intimate connection between violence and dehumanization?

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